News & Views

Opinion / Open for Business

by Contagious Contributor
Blake Mycoskie, the founder and chief shoe-giver at the original One for One company TOMS, on building a collaborative marketplace, and the power of generosity to grow your brand while doing some good in the world

TOMS works with more than 100 ‘Giving Partners’ to deliver shoes, sight and now (through its latest brand extension into coffee), clean water to people in need. There have been alliances with high-profile individuals and organisations that have similar social goals, as well as partnerships with designers who bestow their cachet and credentials on their more pedestrian rubber-soled partner. Meanwhile, the launch of the TOMS Marketplace ecommerce platform has led to the brand using its leadership to curate a network of smaller social enterprises, bringing together partners and customers alike around a set of shared values. Here, Blake Mycoskie explains the value of collaboration to the brand, and what the future holds for partnerships.

We refer to TOMS not as a company, but as a movement. What we’re trying to create through our company is this ideology shift of using business to improve lives, and the idea that it isn’t a competitive marketplace but a collaborative one. The more people share in this idea of using business for good, the more the customer will come to demand it of all companies. And I think that’s when the game is won in a sense, when business as a whole is shifted globally not from just focusing on profit, but focusing on people and the planet as well. Collaborating is a really key part of that.

It’s also about uplifting other brands. Sometimes the market leaders are seen as the behemoths. Take Microsoft or Google, or any other company that’s first to do something and rises to prominence – often, they’re seen as trying to keep the competition out. I hope people see TOMS as the exact opposite. Despite being the market leader and originator of One for One and an early company to embrace a social entrepreneurial purpose to business, I hope people think: ‘Wow, TOMS opened a marketplace to help promote other companies instead of just doing all these ideas itself.’

Sum over parts

There are so many different collaborations we’ve done, I wouldn’t say one was more successful than another. It’s really more about the sum, not about the individual collaborations. You do something with Ralph Lauren or Tabitha Simmons from a fashion design standpoint that has been amazing, but then you also do something with Charlize Theron or Charity Water that really highlights the giving and the good work that they’re doing. And then you do something with Element Skateboards, where you help create skateboards for kids and a skate park in Africa – they’re all so different. The real success is in the community and the movement around TOMS and other companies that are doing this type of business.

The biggest lesson is making sure that both parties clearly identify what they hope to get out of the collaboration. Setting clear expectations is really important. But it’s also about looking at both organisations’ communities and fans, because it’s not just about connecting based on whatever product or thing we promote, but involving communities too, and seeing how we get them to be excited about this and celebrate on different platforms.

Power of the new

Collaborations help with that because they can galvanise fans online. It’s the newness – people want new things from brands. Collaboration allows you to do something with the brand that’s not traditional, that’s a little different or unexpected. On some level it’s collectible too, because you don’t usually do collaborations for very long, especially the limited editions.

Where it’s headed is cross-industry. Previously, you saw a lot of fashion brands, high and low, collaborating. So you had Karl Lagerfeld for H&M or Stella McCartney for adidas. What you’re seeing now is cross-industry: so a brand like TOMS collaborating with a hotel company to create an experience to help the homeless. That’s more where the future of collaboration lies. It allows the brand to speak to a bigger audience, and it allows the audience to experience something different and new from the industry than they would normally experience. We’re talking to banks, hospitality companies, restaurants, food and beverage companies. Right now more than ever, we are open for business for collaborating.

For us, the give is just a part of what we do. I don’t look at it as easy or hard. Where things go wrong is if it’s not authentic. If it’s authentic and it’s real, it works really well.

This article originally appeared in Contagious X, Contagious' 10th anniversary edition. The issue is available to view online and as a free pdf download until 31 January.